One of the greatest franchises to ever appear in video games’ history hit the world by surprise in 1996. The strange name and childish look hide an amazing addiction, that got (and still gets) millions hooked all around the world.
The simple mix between a RPG and a bug collection was a genius idea, and before knowing it, millions were desperately trying to “Catch’em all”, even without assuming it in real life.
This Gameboy hit sold millions, and the little pocket monsters started a franchise which only got defeated in revenue by Super Mario’s.
How I got it
Back in 99, I was 15 years old. I played handball and, like all 15 years old kids, was trying to “be cool” (looking back at my pictures from back then, I was failing this goal). It was in one handball training that I first saw a kid from a younger squad playing Pokémon on a Gameboy Color. Trying to avoid looking too interested, I asked him about the game and stayed there, looking over his shoulder as he played. I clearly had the notion that: a) playing a game where you walk the world getting “cute looking little monsters” was not the coolest thing for a cool-wannabe 15 years old kid to do; b) I had to get that game!
Fortunately Christmas was just coming, and I was able to convince one of my sisters to ask for a Gameboy Color. With a little talk to my mother, saying “well, if she wants it, and since I don’t want anything special, I guess you can buy us both a Gameboy. And since we need a game, I’ve heard of this Pokémon thingy, which I’m pretty sure she will like.”
So, it was in Christmas of 99 that I (once again) lost my soul to a videogame. Looking back I can’t help thinking that if it wasn’t for videogames I could’ve lost my virginity sooner, be far more athletic, and more popular in high school. And probably I wouldn’t wear glasses now. Well, it is what it is! I regret nothing!
I can’t quite recall how many hours I played this game, every day after school. But I clearly remember ALMOST catching them all (I had the Blue version and no Red version available) and was stupid enough to let Zapdos AND Moltres escape and save the game afterwards, convinced they would appear again. I also remember failing to catch Tauros and Magmar (I suppose there were others). Well, overall not everything was perfect in my Quest to become Pokémon Champion.
Finally, during a school break, me and my friends got to the conclusion we all played Pokémon (they were playing it on an emulator), and my addiction transformed from a guilty pleasure, to “just a pleasure”. I didn’t have to be embarrassed by my geekiness after all. I could scream to the world “I like Pokémon!” without any shame! Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky when I dressed as Sailor Moon one day. Bah, stupid high school kids, what do they know?
Condition and Description
Stupid “old days” Nintendo and its stupid card boxes. It’s really tough to maintain a game “as new”. Pokémon is no exception, although the cartridge is in excellent conditions, and I have all the manuals.
Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of bug collecting inspired him to create a game to emulate the feeling and companionship of that activity. After 6 years of development, in 1996, the game came out in Japan.
Pokémon is a RPG where you control Ash Ketchum (who you could rename whatever you want) in his quest to become the Pokémon Champion. But unlike other RPG’s it is not Ash who develops his skills through the adventure, but his friend companions, the Pokémons. And Pokémons are the real stars in the game. The creatures are everywhere, from forests to caves, on houses and on the sea, with different powers and rarities. It is kind of strange, but after you bought your first Pokéball and catch your first Pokémon (mine was a Pidgey), the secondary goal of the game became the more important: you ‘Gotta Catch’em All!”.
The game was set in the Region of Kanto, where a young man decides to start a quest to become the region Pokémon Champion: The Pokémon Master. During this mission, the player is asked to document all Pokémon he finds on the way, using a special device, the Pokédex. Starting with one Pokémon chosen in the beginning of the game (between three options), the player is able to catch new Pokémons using a Poké Ball. The player will have random encounters with wild Pokémons, and also engage in battles against other players (together with some recurring foes, like Gary or Team Rocket). Pokémons which participate (and win) such battles win experience points. This experience points allow Pokémon to increase their level, which allow them to learn new moves and evolve, into new, more “mature” forms. In order to enter the Pokémon League, the player must win 8 badges by battling 8 gym masters, each with a different type of Pokémon.
As already stated, the “collecting” was the most important part of the game, and highly increased both the game’s durability and interest. Pokémon could be found pretty much everywhere, from tall grass to caves, from lakes and the sea to abandoned mansions. Some Pokémon could be won in some sort of mini games, others could be traded with NPC characters, and others could be bought (anyone bought the Magicarp when that man tried to scam you? I’m not totally sure I didn’t). There was also a special area (Pokémon Safari) where, after paying an entrance fee, you could try to hunt some area-exclusive Pokémons). And then there was evolution: some Pokémons could only be catch by training and evolving weaker ones (or by letting them – one at a time – in a Pokémon-sitter who would train them for you).
But it didn’t matter how much time you spent trying to catch all Pokémon, you cannot do it alone. In the beginning you had to choose one Pokémon between three of them. Latter on the game, you had to choose a fossil (which you will eventually clone into a legendary Pokémon) between two possibilities. Those you didn’t choose will never be possible to catch. And there also were the “version-exclusive” ones (there were two versions – Red and Green). This means that in order to complete your Pokédex, you had to connect to other Gameboy, via Gameboy-link, and trade Pokémons (you could also fight the other trainer this way). This bought a social-dimension to the game.
Pokémon was a huge success, and started a franchise which by 2010 sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. Just the other day, I was in the subway when I saw two guys in their mid-twenties playing something on a Nintendo 3Ds. After approaching I saw the unmistakable battle-type. The legend lives on. I do believe it will continue for long (“official” online Pokémon game, no?).
Unique and Notorious
Pokémon is a simple RPG. A 2D, kind of dungeon crawler, shift-battle RPG. So what made it such an immense success? Well, Pokémons, of course. But there is more than that to the game. I’ll try to identify its most important features.
The metaphor – It is recurrent in videogames (and in other areas, like user interfaces, for instance) to use metaphors. This means that you start from something familiar to the user, and give him something he is comfortable with as an aid to new feelings. The Pokémon metaphor is a great one. The fact is that Tajiri used his hobby (bug collecting) to make create the feelings he had in childhood, without making the players really (and only) collecting bugs. This is a good way to generate game ideas: you start with an activity you like, deconstruct it in the characteristics it has which really make you like it, and use that characteristics to generate the mechanics of a new game, completely different (or not). This was amazingly done in this game.
Rock/Paper/Scissors – The rock/paper/scissors is used in a lot of videogames. For instance, in a RTS, it makes all units stronger against some units and weaker against others. In Pokémon this is quite noticeable, with all Pokémon types winning to some and losing to others. This creates a need to some strategy while choosing your 6 Pokémon, in order to have a mixed team, strong against all opponents which may appear. During a battle (especially the toughest ones), it also takes some strategy to chose the right Pokémon against each of the opponent’s Pokémon.
It’s for you, your little sister, and your grandfather – Well, probably not for your grandfather, but the fact is that Pokémon has an amazing target ages’ span, and is also playable by both sexes. The simplicity of the game mechanics makes its learning curve quite smooth. At the same time, managing all Pokémons you catch, creating a strong team and all the “pure” RPG characteristics also attracts hardcore gamers. Oh, and no deaths. No one would like to lose his “cutesy” friends, so they simply faint.
Abandon all hope those who enter Kanto – Hope of escaping, there is. Pokémon was a game built for addiction. Its gigantic world, loads of NPC’s to talk, and 150 Pokémon, sucked your life into the little Gameboy screen. There was no such thing as “playing a little”. Once you started, you would need a lot of strength to stop as hours passed by without you noticing. A game which achieves this level of “suspension of reality” with so many people all over the world must be a great game.
You cannot do it alone – The existence of version-exclusive Pokémon and some “branch choices” means that you could never complete your Pokédex without a link cable to trade your pocket monsters with other (human) trainers. Albeit the pain in the ass that this was to some (like myself) without friends with both the game and the console, this characteristic was a “plus” in game design. Pokémon is all about collecting. And for those who collect anything, it is clear that part of the fun is finding the items you don’t have, and negotiate them. This made you do it. You had to get the person, with the needed version, and the needed Pokémon, who is willing to trade it with you. Way before the augmented reality paradigm, I consider this was a step towards extending the game into the real world (or the real world to the game, as you will). Related to this, the possibility to fight your friends’ Pokémons increased the game interest, and at some extent, would be the only way for you to have really tough battles when playing with you “incredible six” (AKA your best Pokémon team).
Pokémon – Least but not last, there’s no escape to talk about the Pokémons themselves. Their design, “strange but familiar”, made them become amazing creatures, and at the same time “live creatures”. If we don’t consider less inspired designs (never liked Hitmonlee and Hitmonchan), most Pokémons could easily mix in the Earth species without even being the weirdest ones (without their special powers, that is). Pokémons’ cute look, and their constant evolution makes the players create (kind of) a virtual friendship with them. They are weapons, but also pets. Remember the Tamagoshi? Well, the virtual creatures you get in the game were way better, and taking care of them was a point of interest by itself.
Formal Elements (as defined by T. Fullerton)
Players: 1 player. 2 players in battles or trading via link-cable.
Objective: Become the Pokémon Master. Collect all Pokémon.
Procedures: Ash can walk in the world, entering and exiting buildings and other areas. He may cycle if he as a bike. When a wild Pokémon appears, he may fight or flee. In a battle, he may use items on his Pokémons, use Pokémon movements, and change the active Pokémon. When fighting a wild Pokémon, Ash may choose to use a Pokéball. He may use items. When a Pokémon is evolving, Ash may choose to stop its evolution. He may also fish near water.
Distinctive Rules: Pokémons don’t die, they simply faint. You cannot try to catch a Pokémon belonging to a trainer. Pokémons must be tired to increase the probability to catch them. You cannot walk in the world without at least one non-fainted Pokémon. You need to have all 8 badges to enter the final tournament. After becoming the champion, you may continue to search for Pokémons. Some Pokémons only appear once. Some Pokémons are exclusive to one version of the game. You can only carry 6 Pokémons with you. Some Pokémon types are in advantage/disadvantage against others.
Resources: Pokéballs; Money; Healing and Anti-poison potions; Pokémons’ HP and Experience;
Conflict: To become the champion, the player must travel the world, catching and training a team of Pokémons. To enter the final competitions, the player must defeat 8 gym leaders. While traveling the world, the player will have the opportunity to fight innumerous trainers. There are recurring foes (the player’s antagonist and Team Rocket) that appear several times, trying to defeat the player. After entering the championship, the player must defeat the best trainers in a roll, before the final battle against the present champion (the player’s antagonist). To catch all the Pokémons and complete the Pokédex, the player must search everywhere, train some Pokémons until they evolve, fish some of them, and even clone one. Some Pokémons may only be collected by trading with others.
Boundaries: Player must remain in the areas where he can walk. There are some areas the player can only enter when carrying some special item or a given number of badges. There are trees fallen on the roads, which need to be cut by special Pokémons with a special ability. To travel in the seas and lakes, the player needs an aquatic Pokémon. To enter the Pokémon Safari, the player must pay a fee.
Outcome: The player doesn’t die. The player will become the Champion after defeating his rival in the final. He may continue training and catching (and trading) Pokémons afterwards as long as he wants.
Platform: Gameboy / Gameboy Color
Company: Game Freak, inc.
Game Designer: Satoshi Tajiri
Fullerton, Tracy, Game Design Workshop, 2nd Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Morgan Kaufmann, February 2008.